Rebels inside Syria have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward a new organization created to lead the opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad, with the decision to embrace it largely contingent on whether the group delivers significant international aid for the rebellion.
Rebels here say they have little faith that the new group, the Syrian National Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, will be any more effective than its predecessor, the Syrian National Council, whose infighting and inability to form a government in exile discouraged many countries, including the United States, from recognizing it as the primary umbrella group for anti-Assad organization. Most rebel groups inside Syria also never recognized the primacy of the Syrian National Council.
Saudi Arabia and other Arab governments as well as France and Turkey have endorsed the new coalition in the days since its creation Sunday after days of talks in Doha, Qatar. But the United States still has not, with President Barack Obama telling a news conference Wednesday that while the group’s creation was encouraging, the administration was not yet willing to recognize it as the sole representative of the opposition. Among the administration’s concerns is what sort of Syria the group favors if Assad falls.
“One of the questions that we’re going to continue to press is making sure that that opposition is committed to a democratic Syria, an inclusive Syria, a moderate Syria,” Obama said. “One of the things that we have to be on guard about, particularly when we start talking about arming opposition figures, is that we’re not indirectly putting arms in the hands of folks who would do Americans harm or do Israelis harm or otherwise engage in, in actions that are detrimental to our national security.”
Rebels inside Syria also say the group still must prove its relevance.
“It’s not important,” said Abu Qassem, a rebel leader in Ras al Ayn, a city on the Turkish border that rebels took over on Wednesday after a week of fighting. He declined to provide his real name; Abu Qassem is a nom de guerre.
“There are a lot of meetings and nothing happened,” he said. He even dismissed the idea of needing aid. “We don’t want international support. We just want countries to stop supporting the Syrian government.”
That sentiment was echoed by a number of fighters asked about the group in the past week, most of whom said exile politics mattered little at this point in the battle to topple Assad. They said the fight was on the ground, where rebels say they are just as focused on capturing weapons from the Syrian military as they are on receiving them from abroad.
Some, however, did have kind words for Moaz Khatib, the Muslim cleric who was chosen to the head the new body. Khatib remained in Syria until June and was jailed for speaking out against Assad when the uprising began. He is considered by most to be independent of any political party and a moderate on the role of religion in politics.
“He was an orator in Damascus, he’s been arrested a few times, and even after the revolution started he was arrested twice. He’s known to be a good man and people trust him because he never was afraid of speaking out against the regime,” said Samer al Hussein, an anti-government activist in the central city of Hama.
Others voiced optimism that the new group would succeed in persuading the United States to openly arm the rebels. That was the hope of Mousab al Hamadee, an anti-government activist from the western city of Qalat al Mudiq. “Some people think America will lose its pretexts and the formation of this coalition will give friends of Syria cover to offer weapons to the Free Syrian Army,” he said.
Such a development, said others, is critical to undercutting the growing presence in the rebel movement of Islamist extremism. Many secular rebel commanders, in particular defected Syrian officers, have complained openly in past months that they’ve received little support, while Saudi Arabian and Qatari aid flows to more radical groups.
“The international community hasn’t done anything,” said Abdel Aziz Kanan, a defected army officer and the leader of the rebel military council in the country’s northwestern Latakia province. “But support will decrease the influence of the extremists.”